Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The final countdown

That’s it. Now I’ve got exactly a week left in South Africa.

It strikes me every time I think how soon I’ll be home. I feel like the days are passing faster and faster. There’s no more “oh, I’ll do that later, I still have plenty of time” – now things have to get done. Wrap up the data in Excel, make sure it’s sorted right, put all the formulas in the comments and keep the values only. Put a festive ribbon around it and tie a note “ready for R” on it. Scary stuff.

But I rather finish my data management quickly so that over a day or two I can just sit outside, enjoy the warm sun and let my thoughts wander slowly over the past 4 months, recalling all the precious moments this park had created. How I got “stuck in traffic” because an elephant decided to feed intensively on an overhanging tree at the road, or how I was hiding behind a bush while my guard whistled away a group of white rhinos that had decided to spend their morning on my experimental plot. How I spend a day on the field under a constant watch of fifteen giraffes, ten zebras and a couple of warthogs or how I needed to stop weekly at a wild dog boma to collect scat from the enclosure while the dogs were running around me.

Or just the simple yet exclusive everyday life. Sharing the garden with lovely samangos, listening to their chatter and exchanging curious looks with their youngest, and going to bed with bushbabies screaming and elephants feeding and rumbling just outside my room.

One quickly forgets how lucky he/she is. Gets used to the luxury of everyday sighting of unique African wildlife and getting the first-hand experience of work in a diverse savannah environment with highly endangered species like rhino and wild dog. Has to remind him/herself to stop and appreciate the moment of seeing a wake of vultures drinking at the river or a herd wildebeest resting in the shade of tamboti trees.

The fact that the time literally flew past me proves that even though I got a feeling of monotony and weariness from time to time, that was not the case. South Africa always provided with high class entertainment, even outside the park – for example, last time we visited Hluhluwe town for shopping, we saw a truck with massive speakers playing loud electro-with-African-beats music and a proper crowd around it, selling toast bread. Or Cape Town, where “quick and painless abortion” leaflets can be found on the walls of the old castle and where pubs share their backyards with seals and penguins.

After all that, I can almost understand why South African bureaucracy is such a struggle. Why they have to make sure foreigners will not stay too long and even deport them if necessary.

Because if they spend too much time around, they will join the diversity, get a strong taste of the local lifestyle and meet wonderful, friendly, open-minded people. And they might as well fall in love with the place that offers a never ending experience. Which will make them want to stay.

Thursday, 10 July 2014


It was time for a little bit of leisure again. After all, Cape Town happened almost more than a month ago and I’ve been working hard on the field and in the office ever since. I was lucky – a South African friend of mine was on her days off so we teamed up. The deal was the following: she brings a car and a tent, I bring my pleasurable presence and freshly baked muffins. Swell.

First stop was Mkhuze reserve. We knew a bunch of people there that generously invited us to stay with them. Their hospitality was comfortable – camping in their backyard, boiling tea water in their kettles, brushing teeth in their sinks. As a thank you for their kindness, we fixed dinner. Sounded promising – take away pizzas from a highway pub, named The Baobab Inn. Or at least it said “pizza” on the menu.

(a cold plastic thing, united with the cardboard box)

Though, for the people that have lived in the bush for a while, even the worst pizza feels like Christmas. I have to admit, after a warm-up on the braai which added smoky flavour to the plastic cheese and having a couple of drinks, the food was actually acceptable. Such a pleasant dinner was apparently highly inspirational. Someone suddenly decided it’s a perfect night for clubbing! Of course, everyone else thought it was a brilliant idea – didn’t matter we were sitting by the fire in the middle of a nature reserve, surrounded only by acacias and giraffes, with closest village being about an hour drive away. It had to happen. So with the windows down and music volume up, singing and dancing to the latest hits from the East Coast Radio and almost hitting a passing leopard, we drove out to the local cricket club.

Which was closed.

Shock and disappointment that followed killed our party mood and by the time we reached the park gate everyone was asleep which meant the night was officially finished.

Three hours later, sun got up and off we went to explore the reserve. We walked a 18km long transect in the wilderness, counting all the impala, gnu, rhino, lion, giraffe and other animals in our sight. It was a part of the annual game count in the park, estimating species population sizes. Observing the wildlife on foot, noticing all the details, tracks and minerals in the changing landscape of open savannah and closed bushveld allowed experiencing Mkhuze in a most unique way. Feeling it could not get better than that, my friend and I decided to move on.

Walking was a priority and we choose False Bay as our next destination, a reserve with no dangerous game and with an odd name. Especially because there is a pretty, natural, real bay stretching over the whole eastern part of the park. I loved that place, it was a mixture of Sweden and Mediterranean. Not the leopard tracks and scat, or the black mamba watching from the shore and all the red duikers hopping on the forest litter. But the vegetation, the smell and the landscape. Felt like home.

We liked it so much we had to return the following day, and we persuaded another friend to join. After 16 km of forest trail, we put down a picnic at the lake and took a series of selfies. Good times.

Monday, 30 June 2014

When I go for a run

It does get a bit frustrating sometimes, being unable to just go out of the camp for a walk, climb a couple of nearby hills, follow the closest river. It’s absolute wilderness out there, with lions and crocs and elephants behind every corner. And I don’t have a permission for carrying a rifle with me. So I am basically stuck in the camp when I’m not on the field. Which doesn’t really improve your physique,  sitting at the desk for 5 days a week.

Thus, I consider my options (that are very few)
1. work out in an improvised fitness studio (which is a blanket on the floor of my room), using my own heaviness to carry out the toughest of the weight-lifting exercises
2. run around the (small) football court just outside the camp fence
3. risk my own – and someone else’s – life and run further, on the road going through the whole cluster of accommodations, surrounded by thick bush crowded with African wildlife

I avoid the first option as often as I can, and usually try number 3. I got more and more courageous and actually ran alone for a couple of times. I avoided late afternoon hours, when things start crawling out of the bushes, and it worked pretty well. I only met a couple of vehicles and sometimes even some park staff members on foot. 

One day, though, I re-considered solo-run. I’m practically wearing biologists’ goggles all the time. Meaning, I see the world differently, I look for signs, tracks, marks, structure, forms, life. Everywhere, always. So it happened I noticed these perfect (and fresh) tracks in the dust by the road, not far from the camp’s fence. Lion, or at least leopard (but I say a lion). Exciting!!! But hey, worrying too.

Next day, my (worried) friend voluntarily joined me and as we began running I enthusiastically started explaining where I had seen the tracks and how I was sure we’d find them again. Still in the vicinity of the camp, looking at the dust at my feet not to miss the pawmarks, full of fresh spleen, I suddenly got pulled back. A glance was enough to send me darting back to the camp. 
There was a massive elephant bull just in front of us – we were about to run into it if it wasn't for my friend alertness. So the run had to finish before it even started.

For a while, I (we) were discouraged, and it happened that my companion left before we could re-gain our self-assurance. Which brings me back to the beginning – I’m on my own now.

Today, after hours of computer work, I thought I’d have to accept the fitness option after all. There was a family of tranquil zebras in the middle of the football court that clearly didn’t want to be disturbed, especially by a sound of a rusty lead locomotive, so no. 2 was difficult. After deciding to be rudely inconsiderate, invading their privacy and feeling honestly bad about it, it turned out they were not even bothered by me. Well, the baby got up, its mother’s eyes stayed glued on me for the first 3 loops, but by the round 5, everyone was busy chilling again. So there I was, running around zebras.

Until I heard trees breaking. And saw majestic white tusks contrasting the green foliage.

And I was gone again, sprinting to the safety of my room and to the option number one.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Return of the Wild Dogs

In one of the previous posts I wrote about the wild dog situation in this park, or rather in South Africa. How they are kept in a boma while waiting to be translocated (taken into another protected area), under special care of people responsible for their well-being, and therefore the well-being of the whole species.

The boma received a pack of nine dogs, with a strong hierarchical structure and healthy relationships. It would have been an illusion to expect the events to turn into everyone’s favour, but no one had expected that less than half of the pack survived – at the end, there were only three of them left.

Misfortune had it all happen, from escapes from the enclosure to fights with outside packs and even other carnivores (hyenas and lions). The dogs were constantly under pressure, stressed out and anxious. The events created tension inside the pack and brought detrimental consequences. Dogs that made it to the end were no longer connected. They have forgotten they were once brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces. Final separation was a benefit for everyone.

The female dog, Luna, was released in the park. She was the youngest and the most beautiful wild dog I’ve ever seen. With such attributes, it shouldn’t be too difficult for her to find a mate and form a new pack on the already familiar grounds. The two males, senior Chance and young Calvin, were taken to another reserve where they would be bonded with local females and hopefully form a new pack together. 

At least at that point, things went well. All of them were found healthy, so Luna was running into the bushes soon after capture, and the boys were ready to be taken to their new home only a bit later.

With an endangered species such as wild dog, conservation is arduous. It’s like climbing Mt Everest in flip-flops, under a constant assault of screaming ravens. Wild dogs are not like other carnivores, such as lions, which can be kept in breeding centres and eventually re-introduced to suitable protected areas. To “breed” dogs, you need to consider their complex social structure, their dispersive abilities, the food and habitat requirements, the presence of other (competitive) carnivores, the origin, age and personality of every individual dog. Which needs lots of careful planning and involvement of an array of different people. From managers and park owners to ecologists, vets and pilots. 
Yet, all that effort can still not promise a happy ending.

The three dogs are now in a better situation than many others will ever be. Knowing they will be looked after for the rest of their lives by a team of dedicated monitors, gives me comfort. They will always stay in my mind as valuable example of the difficult but rewarding wildlife conservation in South Africa.

Photo by Courtney M., releasing the boys in the other reserve

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Wednesday sparkles

It was supposed to be a normal field day last Wednesday. And it was, except for some moments that made it slightly more interesting than usual.

It began with lions. Just as we left the car, roaring arouse from the environs. A closer look revealed its whereabouts – three big black-maned males were calling from the other side of the river, having a good overview of their kingdom, displaying their power. We stood there for a while admiring them through the binoculars, so mesmerized that we almost didn’t notice a lioness walking towards us. However, before we could decide whether it’s safer to retrieve to the car she already disappeared into the bushes, avoiding us smelly humans.

So we started field work, retrieving cameras and measuring visibility around the experimental plots. Soon the barking gnu was around, as always, telling us we’re not welcome on his sacred land and we should damn get out of there. He keeps a safety distance from us, but insists on his cause. It made me wonder.

When I first met the gnu I thought he was just upset with us because we took over his lunch spot, walked over his favourite resting place and invaded his privacy in general. But usually a gnu would just walk away and find a new place that suits it. The reason for that particular gnu to stay there, barking at us, had to be more personal.
And then I saw it. A skull, bleached and old, yet beautiful. The skull of his beloved, the one that was taken away from him before they could they could together chase the warthogs, party with zebras and stare at the full moon, hoof in hoof. So he stays there with her, with the memories and sorrow, waiting for them to come back and show him the way to the constellation where she awaits. Anyone else visiting their gardens is not welcome.

We kindly hurried up with work and left him and his grief behind.

After arriving to Mbuzane, I had a fascinating conversation with another researcher. She was telling me about her work - about rhino defecation habits and extracting smell from objects like their dung. I learn that the same substances found in their poo are used in food industry, just in different proportions. In other words, you can re-create rhino poo smell by using food flavours they use in production of, for example, Pringles. Good to know.

Still processing the thought, I see Sporro, the Jack Russell terrier living at Mbhuzane camp, walking proudly towards us, carrying something in his mouth. Maybe a dead bird, or a toad? No. He was bringing us a pair of testicles. Our reaction must have discouraged him as he embarrassingly lowered his head (still holding his treasure) and left our giggling group, confused by our disapproval and disappointed by our ungratefulness.

Freshly impressed by those bizarre moments, I almost forgot how that day had started. But as the sun went down the three lions started roaring again. Meaning they stayed at their viewpoint for the whole day.

Either they were too lazy to move or they couldn’t come to a decision of where to go fetch the next meal – the hopeless gnu or the juicy carrion around our camp…

Friday, 6 June 2014

A typical day on the field

I go to the field two times a week. I set up new experimental plots and retrieve data from my camera traps. Sounds easy, but actually it’s quite some work. Besides, my experiments are running on the other side of the park, iMfolozi. It’s almost as far from my home, Hilltop, as possible – so far, that the landscape transforms from hilly to flat and the weather changes from warm and moist to hot and dusty. It’s (only) about 40 km distance, but driving slowly through the whole park makes the daily commute quite a journey.

Luckily, I have a possibility to spend a night at another research station in iMfolozi, called Mbuzane (which I still don’t know how to spell correctly since it’s a Zulu name), reducing the time spend in the car and allowing me to be a little slower on the field. 
So I pack food, pyjamas and socks and say goodbye to Hilltop for the 2 days. The same do my companions, a guard and a helping colleague.

We hit the road just around sunrise, which means we're basically having a morning game drive. Early morning is best time to see the animals and we are guaranteed to see common stuff like impala, nyala, zebra, giraffe and rhino. However, it happens sometimes that also African icons such as lions, elephants, kudus or wild dogs cross my path!
(Though, I don’t like to see elephants that much, because they often block the road with their massive butts and you can stay trapped behind them for hours.)

When we reach the area where we’re about to work, I pick a location that looks suitable for my experiment (an open grazing lawn). Since I’ve been doing that for 2 months now, I can not only decide on suitability of a lawn from the driver’s seat but also if the grass looks appropriate. With cameras and poles, measurement tapes, datasheets and a panga (South African version of machete), we leave the car and set up the experiment. We basically spend the day deciding where to put the cameras, pretending to be elephants and dragging dead logs around, and trying to identify species of completely dried out, trampled and miserably-looking tufts of grass.

Finally, with the cameras running, we leave to Mbuzane.

It’s a station powered by a generator, with little (if any) hot water and extremely basic room for researchers (furnished only by three beds). However it offers much more than meets the eye – close feeling of the wilderness, spectacular views and relaxed, friendly atmosphere. It’s a good place to be in after a day of hard work in thorny, hot and dusty savannah, to chill out and have a sundowner (such as cold cider) on the rock, enjoying the view of the buffalos gathering at the iMfolozi river on the background of magnificent African sunset.

Morning brings another day of work and with the bakkie (a pick-up truck) full of equipment, we go back to the field, pick up the cameras from an old plot, do some more boring measurements and drive back North, already looking forwards to come back to the field again the following week.

Thursday, 29 May 2014


One thing a visitor of the Western Cape should definitely have on its to-do list is wine tasting. This is not only my personal judgement, the tasting is an activity approved and suggested by several tourist guides to South Africa. They find it essential and dedicate at least a few pages to describe what a unique experience each Capetonian winery offers and how each of them deserves attention of the thirsty visitors, both local and foreign.

Just outside the city of Cape Town, the coastal rocky landscape transforms into a land of vineyards. Rolling over the hills and valleys with only individual wine estates interrupting the grapevine lines and little historical towns like Franschoek nested between the mountains, they reach further than the eye can see.

After reading through a thick brochure representing each wine estate as absolutely necessary to visit, we picked two that we found most intriguing and most different. Both were presenting their wine collection in a very professional way, using sophisticated vocabulary (most of which we didn’t understand) and offering the wines with a selection of chocolates, cheeses and salamis. In turn, we posed questions about the grape shapes, barrel colours and estate maintenance. We swirled the wine, judged the colour, sniffed it and took a sip, discussed the aftertaste and rated it like professional wine tasters.

Wines were amazing – even though most of them were mixtures of three, four or even five different grape sorts. I was especially impressed by Pinotage – rich and smoky, with notes of tropical fruit. A real jewel among South African wines.

After we couldn’t fit any more bottles in the car trunk, we continued the journey over the mountains, back to the eastern coastline and towards the city. The main arterial towards Cape Town was constructed on a sandy beach, with the ocean almost spilling over the road. White sand dunes with tufts of lush green grass and famous fynbos, and seagulls foraging for crabs among them. However, the view offered by the opposite side was highly contrasting.

Shanty town made of plastic, metal and cardboard, a mesh of electricity wires above it and swirls of smoke rising from burning rubbish piles. People slowly moving in the shadows of the sheds and avoiding laundry lines stretched across the roads, living on a minimal income, earned only once a year by doing some kind of seasonal job. One like harvesting wine grapes...

And Pinotage suddenly got a darker tone of redness.